Utah’s governor recently signed a bill into law allowing firing squads, and now the debate over the death penalty is again in vogue. Mahatma Gandhi once said: “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” While it may seem inappropriate and even deeply off-putting to some to conceive of criminals and felons as “vulnerable,” in reality, we rightly apply Gandhi’s principle of justice to even the most heinous of our nation’s malefactors. Yes, they are indeed vulnerable, despite their having committed atrocious crimes against members of our communities because, having been imprisoned and stripped of their liberties (e.g., their right to move about freely, to property, and to vote), they are now at the complete mercy of the State. It is because of this reality that we must heed the better angels of our nature and visit, if not compassion, then at the very least a sort of indifference—certainly not death—upon these people.
The death penalty plays upon the worst of Man’s innate impulses: his desire, his thirst, even, for retribution, vengeance, revenge. Certain instances of its use—intense, minutes-long suffering for prisoners subjected to botched lethal injections spring to mind—seem more at home with the Aztecs or the Mongols (or modern-day Saudi Arabia) than in nation-states borne, and ostensibly carrying out the precepts, of the Enlightenment, with its push to the fore of discourse on politics and philosophy concepts such as individual rights and circumscription of the State’s authority and power.
To have recourse to it means our society backslides once more (however slightly that might be) toward barbarism. Civilized, Western democratic societies should not deal death to those who violate their laws because even if the killings are done swiftly and without fanfare—“humanely”—death is still death, and it is always deplorable and gruesome whenever and wherever it occurs. As a general rule, death ought to be minimized.
Indeed, no crime that a person commits erases their innate and sacrosanct human dignity, and society has a responsibility to avoid the unnecessary taking of life. (A sufficient defense of inherent and immutable human dignity can be merely gestured at in this space. Consider, however, two eras, two regimes, where human dignity was not truly recognized or acknowledged in all peoples: America pre-1865, which gave us the cruel and inhuman institution of Black slavery, and Nazi Germany, which gave us the Holocaust. The consequences of systematically dehumanizing and stripping away human dignity are both visceral and morally objectionable. So, there is probably something to this stodgy sounding “dignity” argument.)
Why should we allow the government to possess the ultimate power over its citizenry: the means, permission, and right to execute for a crime a person who has already been neutralized and fettered, who no longer threatens anyone?
Executing rapists and murderers obviously does not erase the fact these people raped and murdered; we all know this to be true. But, in the same way, killing them out of some twisted sense of retributive justice or even proportionality (however emotionally satisfying it might be) solves absolutely nothing; and deep down we all know this to be true as well. Those crimes are in the past. What we ought to do is control what we can in the here-and-now: avoiding even more pointless and senseless killing.
What abolishing the death penalty will do is declare, emphatically and without reserve, that the State is not absolute, that there are some things that even it cannot do (the taking of a person’s life being but one of those things), and that human life in this circumstance is thus inviolable. This is not to say that agents of the State, policemen, whom we as a society collectively empower to enforce the law, should not be permitted to use deadly force at all. Policemen exist to maintain public order for the common good. When someone is belligerent and dangerous, and therefore an immediate threat to peace and stability, an officer has the duty to potentially neutralize said threat. But this is categorically and prudentially different from a state-sponsored execution of a prisoner. No one in our current, mainstream political discourse is in favor of handing over absolute authority and power to an unbridled, mammoth government, especially in the most intimate spheres of our lives. … So why should (and in some cases do) we allow it to possess the ultimate power over its citizenry: the means, permission, and right to execute for a crime a person who has already been neutralized and fettered, who no longer threatens anyone?
But, an objector might ask: What if a prisoner is causing great harm to the common good (inciting riots and such) simply by being in prison? What if the State cannot secure peace because of the criminal? Could we not justify use of the death penalty in this case? The answer, frankly, is yes: If an incarcerated individual is inspiring violence, terrorism, or insurrection, the State, with its clear interest in and duty to foster domestic stability and peace within its borders, can indeed exact the ultimate punishment in order to quell such chaos. But it must be admitted by the objector (if they are being honest) that these cases are exceedingly rare—if not totally nonexistent—in Western democracies. Today’s modern states are able to keep the peace without having to kill.
It may be that you, the reader, are unconvinced by this argument. If so, you might ask yourself the following questions. What right does any one of us have to decide whether or not an individual’s crime merits death? Who are we to determine that a person’s chance to make amends, to atone for their actions in some way, ought to be ripped away from them irrevocably (and perhaps, wrongly, mistakenly, and thus unjustly) in the void of death? Might not the time be ripe for critical, moral self-reflection and growth as a nation, to recognize that killing should be unequivocally minimized? Should not, as President Reagan said in another context, “[i]f there is a question as to whether there is life or death, the doubt should be resolved in favor of life”?